Author Archives: Jack

Always a flight risk

Yes, we’ve been lolly-gagging in this general area of Ireland for what seems like ages. After complaining that we really hadn’t heard much in the way of local music, an old sailing friend swore that a July 12th demonstration, or march as they refer to it, was not to be missed, and to just think of it as a fun show. As it happens, there’s one scheduled not too far away in Ballinamallard. We can wait around for that.

Still, there’s always something to see in Ireland and, as anyone can see, our track at can only be described as drunken wanderings. Always a flight risk, apparently we Escapees really need goals and strict adult supervision. Nevertheless I thought I might have a word with you about what we’ve been up to while waiting for the parade in Ballinamallard, while still trying not to wander too far away.

We’d been waiting for the police to find the missing person who disappeared at Slieve League so the mountain would reopen and we could visit the cliffs, but it was more than a week before they found a body and declared it a homicide and by that time we had moved on.

After a brief stop to exchange an empty LPG tank with UK fittings for a rather pricy full tank we soldiered on and, while it wasn’t raining, we thought we’d get reacquainted with the megalithic world at Drumskinney Stone Circle.

The sheer number of stone circles, cairns, and alignments spread over these many acres begs the question, “Who did this, why did they do this, and what does all this mean?” It’s awfully quiet on the answer side of things.

With the resumption of the classic on again, off again light Irish rain, we took to Escape Velocity to enjoy a circuitous forest drive up to a stunning parkup high above Lough Swilly on the Urris Hills.

The following morning dawned sunny and still, only disturbed by 50 or so Audi enthusiasts, determined to shoehorn their cars into our small car park on top of the mountain. We went for a hike.

I’ve noticed aggressive speed bumps bolted all over many car parks in Ireland and I’m beginning to understand why. About the time we got back from our hike the Audis took turns leaving with a burn-out and a horn toot, just as mysteriously as they came. Nobody knows who they were or what they were doing there.

We decided on a change in altitude and Marce found a charming riverside parkup on Lower Lough Erne with a small dock, toilets, and — be still my heart — showers, with enough sunshine to get these photos.

Later those beautiful clouds you see contained plenty of rain and hail which chased us off our folding chairs on the dock, and had us sprinting for EV. Apparently our sailing weather prediction skills have atrophied.

We decided to keep things at or near sea level while working our way towards Ballinamallard. Not content with just a beautiful parkup with a river view, Marce found a place that included an unsolved mystery. I was concerned with the narrow access road that wound its way through dense trees and scrub along the shoreline.

Really it was little more than a path. Sure enough, at the end we found a tiny car park with one of the few trash receptacles in all of Ireland, filled to overflowing with beer cans. Not a good sign.

Taking a walk we noticed a small old rough concrete pier with a municipal looking number on a post right in front of it.

Turns out there are several dozen of the narrow 20 foot long piers with a small T at the end of each, equally spaced and numbered, all along the waterfront.

No one knows who they were, why they did this, or what it all means.

If it’s true that every rain drop that falls on you is a teardrop you’ll never have shed, we should be in good nick this morning for our drive to Ballinamallard.

We have to navigate all the way through town to get to our reasonably priced mid town parkup for the weekend. We found ourselves immediately diverted upon entering town but somehow stumbled back onto the road toward the parkup. No harm no foul, but I’ve never seen such a large empty and barren gravel lot that was supposed to be the rendezvous fall-in central party area for all the bands.

Told to park anywhere, I chose a spot near the front gate but when I realized they were setting up an outdoor beer bar and we’d be directly between the port-a-loo and the beer, we moved to the back of the empty lot. We weren’t born yesterday.

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Poised for Greatness

As we serpentined our way through Donegal suddenly there was trouble. Barriers blocked our way with the only explanation a small sign that read “traffic diverted.” Google said we were poised for greatness with just a few circuitous blocks to go before we reached the bottom of town where we expected to find a longish strip of a parkup on the River Eske . Just our luck and now this, but we persevered and stumbled back onto the intersection just as it joined the parkup entrance. The next problem was that the parkup was apparently all parked up, looking more like a used RV dealership than a public parking lot.

We slowly trundled through the blinding white sea of aluminum motor homes when just as I was searching for a plan B, I saw it. A small camper van had just vacated a last chance parking space, probably tired of walking so far into town. I admit that I had to jog Escape Velocity back and forth, sometimes making scant progress, sometimes not at all. It was incredibly tight in this lot filled with oversized vehicles, most of which were proud of their designated parking space.

I thought I’d take an orientation walk around the lot, eventually running into an explanation for the crowds and traffic. Welcome to the Donegal Summer FunFest, read a large poster at the entrance to the car park. Live music, vender carts, Celtic classic car meet, special savings at the pubs, even, my personal favorite, face painting were some of the fun filled activities listed, while this vaguely Nordic looking dude points menacingly at Main Street Donegal.

We took his suggestion and headed up towards this charming hamlet.

Dodging the obligatory Irish rain shower or two, we located the stage in the center of town where a fun band called The Tumbling Paddies were knocking out what we’ve found to be a strange worldwide phenomenon, John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Seriously, we’ve heard energetic renditions of this sing-along ditty from Zanzibar to Kathmandu, Thailand to Tasmania and beyond. We’re no longer surprised, we just wait for it.

Back at Escape Velocity we found her inadvertently taking part in a Morgan auto show.

We couldn’t leave Donegal without a tour through the ruins of Donegal Abby which is conveniently located at the end of our parkup.

Turns out the parkup at the end of Donegal was actually centrally located.

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Look but don’t touch

I’ve often felt that the Irish road system was like a hierarchical circulatory system without any evidence of an aorta, a bare minimum of arteries, a fair number of veins, and RV drivers have to fend for themselves on the capillaries. Today we capillaried our way to the Malin Beg headlands, Ireland’s most northernly point, where we were assured to expect a semi level parkup with stunning views, sunny beaches, pleasant hikes, and as a bonus, a Napoleonic era signal tower.

In the US there’s almost always a town in every state that bills itself as “Upside down world” where up feels like down or a ball rolls uphill and everything is magnetic. This parkup was so tilted — or maybe it was the lay of the land surrounding it — that was so discombobulated that it was quite disorienting and every time one of us spotted what looked like a level looking space we’d drive over, park only to find it 4 or 5 degrees off level.

We have an iPhone with an app that gives what we’d thought was an accurate digital readout when left on the floor of the van. I’m beginning to wonder if it works at all. As I’ve said before, we’ve become quite adroit at spotting the most level space in a given lot, but this place has us considering agonizing reappraisals of our skill level. Honestly, we tried them all and even with the help of ramps we were living at a 2.5° deficit. At a 2° tilt things like refrigeration doesn’t seem to work as well in Escape Velocity.

Regardless we’re here for the night but first a hike to the old signal tower was in the offing so it was boots, poles, and due to the wind speed, caps.

There was nothing posted that would help guide us to a trail to the tower. Truth be told we never made it out to the headlands either.

We passed by an awesome flight of stairs that led hundreds of feet down to the beautiful beach below but with respect to rule #3 we are not going to swim in ice cold water, especially in this wind, we can see it very well from up here, thank you, and that’s a lot of steps.

We followed fences through a grassy sheep poop infused path till we came upon this sign .

Now we know that 90 something percent of the time this is not connected to anything electrical but, just the same… Still, this is a beautiful place even though it seems you can’t get out to the headlands. You can still photograph it, you just can’t touch it

Tomorrow we have a serious mountain pass to cross and a waterfall to check out on our way to Donegal. By the way, for you mystery buffs, Slieve League is still closed. No body found yet.

We’ve an old Irish city to navigate to find a parkup. It’s sometimes chock-a-block with campers. Wish us luck.

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Now for something completely different

We knew that finding a place to park at the touristy Narin beach might be chancy but sometimes you just have to try. When I spotted a car leaving the next to last spot in a long row of parked cars I went for it, somehow squeezing Escape Velocity straight in. What would it be if you didn’t even try? You can’t plan for luck like that, you just stick out your racket and something good might happen. It was far from level and extricating EV out of here will not be fun but I decided to worry about that later. In the meantime the broad expanse of beach in front of us was truly beautiful.

It’s on a scale of beaches in Australia except this strand is filled with shivering Irish families covered up under their expensive Dry Robes, instead of lobster-red nearly naked Aussies baking in the sun. Suffice it to say it’s on the blustery, nippy side here in the Emerald Isle but they’re determined to have fun amidst the general beach brouhaha, and they really do.

The racket coming from the little cafe, across the narrow lane right behind us was shouting “party” but on further inspection was quietly found to have linen tablecloth prices, a strange juxtaposition for a beach vendor. You can drop a lot of coin for a burger and chips here at Narin beach.

It turns out we are going to have to wait until 3:30pm for low tide. What happens at low tide you ask? That’s when the water recedes down to the level where you can wade across Greebarra Bay to Inishkeel Island which features ancient monastery ruins, giving you something to wade to, so to speak.

Most conversation that day went something like, “Is it low enough?” “Not yet, Marce.” I’d seen a couple of people get bowled over in the swirling frigid current so I saw no reason to push it. The water level seemed to drop at a glacial pace all day until suddenly it looked like the beginning of the wading window was at hand. The receding tide exposed so much more sandy beach that now it was quite a hike just to get to the water.

As we entered the bay, we could immediately feel the cold current tugging at our legs.

Small waves that wrap around Inishkeel Island from the left and the right meet in the middle of the sandy bar creating a standing wave.

Gaining ground we negotiated some rocks hidden by seaweed and pressed on to a sandy cove where a handsome sloop was anchored.

At the end of the beach, high on a bluff overlooking the cove, we could see the ancient ruins of St. Connell church and St. Mary’s church, built in the 13th century.

There really wasn’t a path so you just have to force your way up through the overgrown weeds.

For a change we knew who they were and what they were doing there.

It certainly is picturesque.

The breeze is really freshening and the tide is swiftly swirling in, so we have a change of plans and quickly make our way down to the crossing bar.

Tide’s rising

We may have left it a little too long because the current is stronger and up to our knees this time.

The tide may be rising but it’s still a long walk up the beach to Escape Velocity.

Spent but happy describes this sunset.

Marce was in need of some quiet time away from the beach hub-bub which we found in spades the next day at the Ballyiriston parkup.

There were some nice walking trails through the hills. EV is up there somewhere.

Peace to you all.

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The Gap of Mamore

Escape Velocity had been laboring up this twisty, switchbacked, one-lane mountain road for some time now, but just when I began to think we’ve reached the summit it only revealed an even steeper rise.

Rounding a tight switchback — I really don’t know how high up the mountain we were — a viewpoint sign flashed in front of me and I reflexively turned in. Clinging to the mountainside was a tiny parkup with about as magnificent a view as I’ve ever seen. It truly took my breath away. I switched off EV and we just sat there, mesmerized.

We leveled the van with ramps, turned off the engine, turned on the LPG and called it home.

We had miles to go to get to our intended destination but we thought maybe we could linger awhile. As the light played across the hills in an ever changing palette I said, “I’m just not ready to leave this place.”

I took a stroll and stumbled onto an old story that took place right where I was standing. It seems the folks in Urris, which is the little village towards the sea, had a still in just about every back yard where they distilled an incredibly potent, potato-based spirit called Poitin.

Everyone was happy with this state of affairs until it was outlawed in 1760. The distillers simply took to the hills where a lookout could spot police or revenuer from miles away on the only road up.

You can just imagine tiny fires dancing all night, far off up on the mountain, thumbing their noses at the authorities. In protest of the fines levied for having stills, the community blocked the pass with huge rocks. This held for three years until the British swooped in and that was that. Today poitin is still made in Urris and many people swear it’s the strongest spirit made. Note to self: further research required.

We stayed two nights at the overlook but to get to the Grianán of Aileach, a mountain-top fort built in the 9th century, first you’ve got to summit this crazy Gap of Mamore and we could see the steepest section is right in front of us.

We still had to climb all the way up Greenan Mountain.

The nearly perfectly round stone fort is built on the bones of a prehistoric fort and has a commanding and beautiful view of Lough Foyle and Inch Island to the north.

Awesome fun fact that Yours Truly dug up just for you Escapees: This fort, or at least its ancient location is one of only five in Ireland mentioned by Ptolemy on his map of the known world.

With the return of the Irish rain we headed down the mountain toward a beach and managed to stumble into another strange story. We had a very beachy parkup with lots of extra family fun, but the thing that intrigued us was an interesting bronze sculpture of multiple figures with upraised jazz hands. Well, let it never be said that we Escapees ignored something like that, dare I say art?

Walking up to the large sculpture we found that it was in fact two sculptures in some strange relationship to each other.

It’s titled “Flight of the Earls” but it didn’t mean much to us at the time. Well it turns out its significance can not be overstated, so bearing in mind that I am not an accredited historian and half the time I’m just making this stuff up, I’m going to give it a go.

It seems that after defeat at the battle of Kinsale in 1601, Hugh Roe O’Donnell and 90 or so of his closest buddy Earls and their families, finding themselves quite diminished in power and authority, decamped and traveled to Spain with the expectation that King Phillip lll might help them reinvade Ireland. Of course they had no idea that in 1598 Spain had gone bankrupt, you know, belly up, come-a-cropper, insolvent, chapter 11, pooched the dog, so it was never in the cards. Suffice to say it didn’t go well. Of course this signaled the end of the old Gaelic order due to the vacuum left by the ancient aristocracy of Ulster going into permanent exile, clearing the way for the Plantation of Ulster and troubles for centuries thereafter.

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Circles within circles

We haven’t seen much in the way of megalithic sites since we shipped Escape Velocity and ourselves off in the ferry to Ireland. So when we found ourselves near an almost mysterious plain, filled with an overlapping series of circles we said, “That’ll do.” Then again, I suppose they’ve all been mysterious.

We found the official parkup to be a nondescript level lot out in the middle of nowhere. We had some dinner and while washing up I noticed soft golden light filtering down in rays angling out of the sky, what I call the Holy Ghost. Golden hour is always good for photography. We hopped out and hiked toward the fields.

Of course no one knows why these fields were considered such an apex of interest. Three pairs of circles plus a bonus seventh well peppered with dragon teeth, stone alignments, 12 cairns, some of them containing cremated human remains, all in these fields. It’s an incredible concentration of thought, energy, and organization.

Dragon teeth

The info plaque said the fields were originally partially covered in hardwood trees with cultivated open areas. Peat began to encroach and eventually covered the site from the first millennium BC onwards. The site remained lost until it was discovered in the early 1900s during peat cutting. Archaeological excavation started around 1945. Like most of these sites, no one knows who they were or what they were doing there.

Meanwhile we’ve managed to wander a good distance from John’s repair shop but our van parts have arrived so we’re off to set Escape Velocity right.

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Loose lips

Lately we’ve been running into nice little parkups only having to slam on the brakes when trying to enter due to height restrictions in the form of a heavy pipe suspended at about 2 meters across an entrance gate. Marce found a rare golden parkup in the center of downtown Derry, a level park-like setting within spitting distance of the River Foyle, including a nice cafe, all for a couple of quid a day, paid by a proprietary phone app which I left in the capable hands of our IT department. There’s even an aire for full RV service; that’ll cost you, but good to know it’s there. In this idyllic setting it was sobering to look out the windscreen and see three large block letters of painted out graffiti on three stone pillars right in front of us.

As a matter of fact I’ve been warned that my habit of calling this location Derry may elicit something less than the friendly response in which it was given. Some prefer Derry/Londonderry (“Derry stroke Londonderry”) or some waggish blokes just call it Stroke City. I’m not ready for that but point taken: mind yer P’s and Q’s. There’s simply no avoiding politics around here. We opted for a pleasant afternoon walk along the Foyle.

Before long we had another brush with fame. I haven’t a clue what purpose this thing served but the Derry Girls frequently hung out here hatching their next hair-brained scheme.

In the morning we decided to walk the city wall. Derry (just find it in your hearts to forgive me but I’m not typing all that out) is a walled city. Built in 1613-1618, it’s the last remaining completely walled city in Europe. Not far from our parkup we ran into this popular crew. If it’s not GoT it’s the Derry Girls.

It’s easier to find the stairs up to the wall from inside the gate.

This is a well armed medieval city wall.

Roaring Meg siege cannon

The walled inner city has maintained its medieval layout.

Some things are universal

The Royal Bastion featured a 100 foot tall pillar with the 9 foot heroic visage of the Reverend George Walker on top until 1972 when the IRA put paid to the monument with a 100 lb bomb. The plinth was restored and left to represent in a less conspicuous fashion.

A large war memorial dominates the square in the center of the old city. All four main gates can be seen from this square.

By this point my feet were telling me that our adventure ought to be over but I felt that they still had a walk across the Peace Bridge left in them. Just think of it as a structural handshake.

Well they say there’s always room for one more hopeful gesture and this handshake was spotted on the way home.

Like my grandfather always used to say, “there and back in the same day.” I never knew what he meant by that.

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Two thumps in the night

Kettle on in the slanting morning sun, I popped outside just to checkout Escape Velocity, having vaguely remembered being awakened last night, but not sure if I had been dreaming or not. I had not. Two egg bombs were splattered all over the back of the van. Coffee will have to wait because the sun is heating up the van and you do not want that stuff drying on the paintwork. With the cost of eggs these days, giving up two could be considered an honor. Sometimes a totally futile gesture is all that’s called for. First they love us, then they hate us.

Compulsories out of the way we began our rapid descent down the mountain towards the checkerboard alluvial plains of Magilligan Point.

Once at sea level we couldn’t have changed altitude more than a few inches as we traversed the entire pancake like plain, but we sure started to dogleg around every farmer’s whimsically shaped fields. Eventually we gained the coastal roads bordering Lough Foyle and our crack activity director mentioned that she’d found a more natural parkup in the low grass covered dunes adjacent to the Foyle.

We passed a large complex that had the feel of a high-walled, rusty barbed wired prison and then a military live firing range that takes up most of the rest of the peninsula. The red flag means they’re firing today. What could go wrong?

We passed up several spots that I judged a little too natural and when I saw that we were nearly out of parkup I turned hard to port, finding us in the neighborhood of dug-in camper with awnings, wind breaks, fire pit, you know, the full Monty. No one in evidence. I’m thinking they must do the entire summer here.

It’s usually not a good idea to interject oneself into the middle of an established community, but what are you going to do? We found a nice level spot, switched off and called it home.

After lunch we walked down to a small ferry dock and watched people crossing the Foyle from Donegal, Ireland to Magilligan Point, United Kingdom. A voyage of not more than 10 minutes but another country. It’s more of a pretend border but we bristled at the £9 fee per international passenger. I imagine it would be €10.48 on the way back.

After watching a few cycles of the international ferry ply the Foyle back and forth, we thrillseekers set out for more adventurous activities, and sure enough, we found a Martello Tower hidden in the high grass-covered dunes.

This one appears to not be oval shaped and an interior tour of the facilities were not on the offing.

Nice touch with the corbels though.

What sets this adventure apart from some others is that it’s a short walk back to Escape Velocity and her peaceful parkup.

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A strange happenstance above the Foyle

We’d had Escape Velocity straining up this mountain for quite some time now. But finally as we crested the summit, and just as Marce said, we found a long strip of a roadside parkup leaning on this side back down the mountain, and on the other side down the mountain the other way. However, balanced at the very top, were a few precious level spaces, occupied. As an RV driver I’ve learned that you can’t reconnoiter for long without offending the populace so I pulled into the first available space. Now we wait.

To pass the time I decided to climb the last bit of the mountain and to my amazement I found myself in Rio de Janeiro with Christ the Redeemer towering above us.

It was my own Twilight Zone moment. You can imagine my confusion. As I scrambled (age adjusted) up the path things started to come into focus. It’s definitely not the world famous 98 foot tall Art Deco Christ the Redeemer statue. We’re not in Rio de Janeiro, and this is not Sugarloaf Mountain. But what is it? Turns out it’s Manannan MacLir, regarded as the Irish Neptune.

It seems in Celtic times it was widespread practice to make votive offerings to deities like the Sea God of Lough Foyle. In 1896, two ploughmen stumbled across the accumulated precious offerings which became known as the Broighter Gold Hoard. To this day if the weather gets up on the Foyle sandbanks between Inishtrahull and Magilligan, the locals say, “Manannan is angry today,” while reaching for a trinket or two, at least something shiny.

My goodness, the views from this place are staggeringly beautiful and it’s easy to see why the massively eccentric Earl-Bishop always wanted to use this route to travel to his home at Downhill Demesne.

We found a path down the face of the summit that led to an observation deck and alternately a path to something called Hell Hole which I’m going to guess had nothing to do with the other Hell Hole in Russell, New Zealand. Further exploration revealed nothing more than a lumpy field chock-a-block with sheep poo. On the other hand, in New Zealand, Hell Hole was once filled with lonely sailors, and is one of the few places in New Zealand not chock-a-block with sheep poo.

Where was I? Oh yes, I think it’s time for photos.

Sweet dreams from high above Lough Foyle.

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The Notorious Sorley Boy

Dunluce Castle was established early in the 1500s by the MacQuillans as the center of power for their Gaelic lordship. In the mid 1550s the Scottish clan, our old friends the MacDonnells, ousted the MacQuillans; we can only guess how but bloodshed was probably involved. What followed was near constant conflict with the surrounding families in burgeoning Dunluce Town. Sorley Boy MacDonnell, in a tug of war with the English Crown and Ulster Gaelic Chieftains, lost Dunluce in a prolonged seige, gained it back, then lost it again to the even more notorious Cromwell. Let’s just call it an actual Game of Thrones.

Our task this morning is called the Game of Parking, or GoP. It was a tragic lack of imagination that Sorley Boy MacDonnell didn’t plan for the crush of buses and automobiles that would need a little real estate to visit his old family home. Buses take up 50% of the paltry few parking slots so the hot tip is to go early. We went early. What a joke.

Marce suggested passing the parking strip and coming in from behind. That’s something Sorley Boy would try. As we pulled in, a small van was pulling out and I snuck right in behind him. A frustrated bus driver came over with his finger wagging and wanted to kick us out but another driver said no, no, just pull in close to the stone wall, which was exactly what I’d planned to do. We were squeezed into the impossible-to-find parking place. I thanked my new best friend and smiled at Mr. Grumpy. We are the Notorious Escape Velocity!

Dunluce Castle is beautifully situated on top of a basalt promontory jutting out into the Irish Sea.

After an obligatory trip through the gift shop, you stroll down through an expansive walled-in domestic section with stables, brewhouse and guest lodgings.

Suddenly far off in the distance you see the bridge to the gatehouse and its majestic twin towers. It’s really an awesome sight.

There’s an elegant masonry arched bridge in place of the original drawbridge.

The gatehouse has Scottish style corbeled corner turrets that are quite familiar to us.

A reinforced curtain wall has two openings that face the mainland with cannon rescued from the Spanish Armada vessel La Girona which sank near here.

Opposite is an unusually elegant feature called a loggia, a row of columns holding up a roof to cover a walkway. Definitely a southern Europe influence .

The remains of a fine Jacobean mansion, built by Randal MacDonnell by 1620 was the main residence.